Russia targets Bill Browder in Magnitsky poisoning theory

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Inside Europe: The EU and Magnitsky sanctions

Moscow has opened a fresh criminal probe against British financier Bill Browder. But the Kremlin critic told DW that the probe represents just another "spike in these Russian games" ahead of a new Magnitsky Act.

Russian prosecutors announced on Monday a criminal investigation against British financier Bill Browder, saying that they suspect him of being behind the death-in-custody of Russian anti-corruption lawyer  Sergei Magnitsky.

Browder, who has already been sentenced in absentia to nine years in a labor camp by a Russian court, called the latest allegations that he poisoned his own friend and lawyer "Kafka-esque to say the least."

"We see a spike in these Russian games every time there is an attempt to go forward with a new Magnitsky Act anywhere in the world," Browder told DW.

Read more: EU paves way for Russia sanctions over chemical weapons

'EU will go ahead' with Magnitsky

Ten years ago, Magnitsky was arrested on charges of creating illegal tax evasion schemes. He subsequently died in pre-trial detention. Months before his death, Magnitsky had accused interior ministry officials of organizing a $230 million (€201 million) tax scam. He then found himself charged with the same crime he claimed to have uncovered. 

Browder vowed at the time to punish those involved in the killing. He has since referred to himself as President Vladimir Putin's "Enemy Number One," because of his work shepherding through the Magnitsky Act in the US, a series of financial sanctions targeting officials deemed responsible for the lawyer's death. Browder has been pushing for more countries, including the EU, to adopt the legislation.

"The Dutch have bowed to the Kremlin by proposing to take the name Magnitsky out of the act," Browder told DW. "But I am confident the EU will go ahead with its own act."

Read more: Poisoned Pussy Riot activist: The Kremlin was sending a 'warning sign'

Vladimir Putin: The road to power

KGB cadet

Born in St.Petersburg in 1952, Putin signed up with the Soviet intelligence agency the KGB right out of law school in 1975. His first assignment was to monitor foreign nationals and consulate employees in his home city, then called Leningrad. He was then assigned to Dresden, East Germany. He reportedly burned hundreds of KGB files after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Vladimir Putin: The road to power

Political mentor

Putin was one of the deputies to St Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak from 1991 to 1996. Sobchak met Putin at Leningrad State University and the two men were close until Sobchak's death in 2000. Despite accusations of corruption, Sobchak was never charged.

Vladimir Putin: The road to power

Meteoric rise

Putin quickly leapt from St.Petersburg to Moscow. In 1997, President Boris Yeltsin gave Putin a mid-level position on his staff — a position Putin would use to cultivate important political friendships that would serve him in the decades to come.

Vladimir Putin: The road to power

Death of a friend

Putin was deeply affected by Anatoly Sobchak's death in 2000. After the apprentice outstripped his teacher politically, Sobchak became a vocal early proponent of Putin's bid for the presidency. A year earlier, Putin used his political connections to have fraud allegations against Sobchak dropped, the beginning of a pattern for friends of the former spy.

Vladimir Putin: The road to power

Temporary president

In June 2000, Boris Yeltsin stepped down, leaving his prime minister to become interim leader. As he was running for his successful presidential campaign, corruption allegations from his time on the city government in St.Petersburg resurfaced. Marina Salye, the lawmaker who brought up the claims, was silenced and forced to leave the city.

Vladimir Putin: The road to power


When Putin was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term in 2008, his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ran in his stead. When Medvedev was elected, he appointed Putin as premier. This led to criticism of a "tandemocracy," in Moscow, with many people believing that Medvedev was Putin's puppet.

Vladimir Putin: The road to power


In March 2018, Vladimir Putin was elected to his fourth term as president. Because the presidential term has been extended, this means Putin will be in power for the next six years. However, the election was marred by a lack of opposition to the incumbent, as well as allegations of vote tampering and ballot-stuffing.

'Military-grade toxin'

Nikolai Atmonyev, an advisor to the Prosecutor General's Office, claimed that Browder might have forced Magnitsky to commit perjury and therefore was interested in seeing him dead.

"The Russian General Prosecutor's Office has concluded that it was Browder who was interested in Magnitsky's death," Atmonyev told reporters on Monday.

Mikhail Alexandrov, from the Prosecutor General's Office, said a criminal case had been opened into a poisoning with a military-grade substance of Octai Gasanov, Valery Kurochkin, and Sergei Korobeinikov, three people described as Browder's associates, reported Russian state news agency TASS.

Read more: Opinion: The Skripal poisoning's smoking gun

Russian hunt for Browder

Alexandrov said that it was "highly likely" that Magnitsky, who they said displayed similar symptoms, was poisoned as well.

"Gasanov, Kurochkin and Magnitsky had precisely these symptoms in their final moments before death. Traces of toxic aluminum compounds were also found in Korobeinikov's liver," reported TASS.

Browder faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, Atmonyev said, adding that Moscow would put him on the international wanted list "in the near future."

"The Russians have been trying to use Interpol to arrest me since 2013," Browder told DW. "From the legal standpoint, I feel safe in the UK. But if the Russians want to poison me, they will poison me."

Read more: Is the EU kowtowing to the Kremlin on Magnitsky sanctions?

A history of political poisonings

Sergei Skripal

Sergei Skripal, a 66-year-old former Russian spy, was found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the British city of Salisbury after he was exposed to what police said was an unknown substance. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the situation "tragic" but said, "We don't have information about what could be the cause, what this person did."

A history of political poisonings

Kim Jong Nam

The estranged half-brother of Kim Jong Un was killed on February 13, 2018 at Kuala Lumpur airport after two women allegedly smeared the chemical nerve agent VX on his face. In February, a Malaysian court heard that Kim Jong Nam had been carrying a dozen vials of antidote for the deadly nerve agent VX in his backpack at the time of the poisoning.

A history of political poisonings

Alexander Litvinenko

Former Russian spy Litvinenko had worked for the Federal Security Service (FSB) before he defected to Britain, where he became a journalist and wrote two books of accusations against the FSB and Putin. He became ill after meeting with two former KGB officers and died on November 23, 2006. A government inquiry found he was killed by radioactive polonium-210 which it alleged the men put in his tea.

A history of political poisonings

Viktor Kalashnikov

In November 2010, doctors at Berlin's Charité hospital discovered high levels of mercury had been found in a Russian dissident couple working in Berlin. Kalashnikov, a freelance journalist and former KGB colonel, had 3.7 micrograms of mercury per litre of blood, while his wife had 56 micrograms. A safe level is 1-3 micrograms. Viktor reportedly told German magazine Focus that "Moscow poisoned us."

A history of political poisonings

Viktor Yushchenko

Ukrainian opposition leader Yushchenko became sick in September 2004 and was diagnosed with acute pancreatis caused by a viral infection and chemical substances. The illness resulted in facial disfigurement, with pockmarks, bloating and jaundice. Doctors said the changes to his face were from chloracne, which is a result of dioxin poisoning. Yushchenko claimed government agents poisoned him.

A history of political poisonings

Khaled Meshaal

On September 25, 1997, Israel's intelligence agency attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Meshaal, under orders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Two agents sprayed a poisonous substance into Meshaal's ear as he walked into the Hamas offices in Amman, Jordan. The assassination attempt was unsuccessful and not long afterward the two Israeli agents were captured.

A history of political poisonings

Georgi Markov

In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Markov was waiting at a bus stop after a shift at the BBC when he felt a sharp jab in his thigh. He turned to see a man picking up an umbrella. A small bump appeared where he felt the jab and four days later he died. An autopsy found he'd been killed by a small pellet containing a 0.2-milligram dose of ricin. Many believe the poisoned dart was fired from the umbrella.

A history of political poisonings

Grigori Rasputin

On December 30, 1916, mystic and spiritual healer Rasputin arrived at Yusupov Palace in St Petersburg at the invitation Prince Felix Yusupov. There, Prince Yusupov offered Rasputin cakes laced with potassium cyanide but he just kept eating them. Yusupov then gave him wine in a cyanide-laced wine glasses, but still Rasputin continued to drink. With the poison failing, Rasputin was shot and killed.

ls,kw/msh (AP, dpa)

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